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Tips for grafting a calf

There’s more than one way to encourage cow-calf bonding, but hormones and smell are key

When a cow loses a newborn calf, many stockmen will graft an orphan or twin onto the cow. Sometimes it’s prudent to graft an old cow’s calf onto a younger cow that has lost a calf, so that the old cow can be fattened and sold. But what’s the best way to get a cow to accept a calf that’s not her own?

Dr. Steve Hendrick of Coaldale Veterinary Clinic at Coaldale, Alta., says that it’s generally easier to foster a young orphan calf than an older calf. There are many methods that have been used to help convince a cow to accept a calf that is not her own, he adds.

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“Some people skin the dead calf and put the hide over the substitute calf, to trick the cow into thinking it’s hers, but this is lot of work and there are often other ways that can be successful,” he says.

There are also times where a person doesn’t have the option of skinning the dead calf — for example, if it was eaten by a predator. In this situation you must use another method.

A sedative such as acepromazine can be administered to make the cow mellow if she is reluctant to accept it.

“Sedating the cow may help. Then, after the calf has nursed, she may be more receptive to mothering it,” says Hendrick.

Dosage is important, however, and in some cases it doesn’t work very well.

“Some cows may become hyper instead of drowsy, if they are overly sensitive to the drug,” he says.

Dr. Joseph Stookey has a PhD in applied animal behaviour and is a professor emeritus at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. He also raises Speckle Park cattle. Stookey says there are several things to keep in mind when trying to graft a calf onto a cow that lost her own calf.

“If you or the vet pulled a calf and it’s dead at birth, don’t let the cow lick it. She doesn’t know her own calf until she bonds with it by smelling and licking it. You don’t want her bonding to a dead calf because that makes your job harder when you try to substitute another calf.”

If she’s already licked and bonded with her own calf, you may have to skin it and put the hide over the substitute to trick her into thinking it’s hers.

“If you have a spare calf that’s a few days old and it needs a mother, rub that calf with birth fluids from the dead calf,” he says.

It’s also wise to tie the legs of the calf together when you bring it to the cow, so it can’t get off the ground.

“You don’t want the calf to run right to the udder. The cow generally needs a little time to lick and get a new baby up on its feet before it gains access to the udder. You want to give the cow time to mother the calf. You can simulate this step-by-step bonding process by having the substitute calf stay on the ground for a few minutes until the cow has started to lick it,” Stookey says.

An orphaned calf, with a hide tied to it, catches up to its adoptive mother.
photo: Lisa Guenther/Flikr

Another thing that works is to put the cow in a head-catch while you bring the substitute calf to her, and help it suckle — especially if the calf has never nursed a cow. Otherwise the calf is looking to you for dinner rather than wanting to go to the cow.

If you help it onto a teat so it can learn to suckle the cow, this also stimulates milk let-down on the cow that just lost her new calf. Then when you turn them loose together, she will usually mother the calf, especially if you smeared birth fluids over that calf and its hind end, which is where the cow will smell and lick as the calf nurses.

If you had to pull a calf or take it by C-section and it is dead, it may also help to put some of the birth fluids from that calf onto the cow’s nose and mouth before she gets up, and also put some of that fluid onto the substitute calf. This can help jump-start the maternal process.

Anything you can do to encourage the cow to lick the orphan calf will help with bonding. Some people put grain or molasses (or one of the commercial products marketed for this purpose) onto the calf.

“This can get that cow interested in that calf when she licks the feed, or product, off it. Then she’ll taste some of the birth fluids you smeared on that calf. Those fluids are pretty magical, to stimulate the cow’s maternal process,” says Stookey.

Stookey adds that they’ve also tried spraying oxytocin into a cow’s nostril. The oxytocin hormone plays a role in the maternal process. It is released by the pituitary gland in the brain. From there, it’s a very short jump to the olfactory bulb, which is involved with sense of smell, Stookey explains.

“It seems like some of the oxytocin needs to be in the olfactory bulb to help with maternal recognition and memory of that calf, to stimulate maternal behavior,” he says.

Smell is the determining factor for how a cow recognizes her calf. She may be momentarily confused by the sight of another calf, or another calf bawling, but once she smells the calf she knows instantly whether or not it’s hers.

“Research in humans shows that recognition of faces is tied to sense of smell. There is a condition in people called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, in which they can’t recognize other people by looking at faces. In one study, researchers sprayed oxytocin up their nose and they could immediately recognize faces,” says Stookey.

Injecting oxytocin into the muscle doesn’t work, as it doesn’t move to the brain, Stookey adds. Instead, the oxytocin will move to the udder and stimulate milk let-down. It will also move to the uterus, stimulating contractions to help the cow expel her placenta.

Many producers use all sorts of tricks and substances to put onto the calf. Some might work, but it’s hard to know if the successful bonding is due to what they did or whether that cow was going to bond with the calf anyway.

If the cow’s hormones are lined up, the cow may bond with a calf that’s not her own anyway, says Stookey. In various studies, between 40 and 60 per cent of the control animals accepted a substitute calf, without human intervention.

“So you wonder how spraying a strange odour onto a calf that a cow has already refused would make her want that calf. Some people say you’ve masked the odour of the calf, but if the cow is already not bonding to it and doesn’t want it — no matter what odour that calf is, she’s not going to want it. The ones it ‘worked’ on were going to accept the calf anyway,” Stookey says.


Heifers that reject their calves

Working with a heifer who doesn’t want her calf is frustrating, Stookey acknowledges, and producers usually cull that heifer to avoid a repeat of that situation the next year.

But before getting mad at that heifer, remember that it wasn’t a conscious choice on her part so much as hormones.

“Producers generally don’t get angry at a yearling heifer that didn’t breed; they just cull that heifer. If we think about bonding failure from that perspective, we have more understanding about why a heifer doesn’t want to be a mother. Yes, it’s her calf, but for whatever reason, she doesn’t have the proper hormones in place. Getting angry with her will not change that situation,” Stookey says.

There are some things that can help, such as restraining her and helping the calf suckle. The act of nursing and milk let-down stimulates production of oxytocin and often triggers maternal behaviour.

“Some of them, however, you could suckle three times a day for five days and still not make progress,” says Stookey.

He had a young cow once that didn’t want her calf and he helped it suckle many times. The calf knew its mother and where the milk was. Out of frustration, he finally just turned her and the calf loose. The calf would chase down the mom and suckle between her hind legs and eventually she’d let down her milk and stop trying to move away. But she never did have any interest in her calf.

Some producers go to great lengths to make a heifer accept and raise a calf she didn’t want, and with persistence this works. It may take two or three weeks of supervised nursing sessions to make sure the heifer doesn’t beat up on the calf.

“Before you go to all that trouble, it might pay to see if there is a better candidate in your herd for raising that calf. A cow that lost her calf and wanted it might make a much better mother than the heifer that doesn’t want her calf. You can make that switch and the calf will do better, and you can cull the heifer.”

If the heifer is the only possible mother, however, you can usually make her accept it with time and patience. Keep them penned separately so she can’t hurt her calf when it tries to nurse — and only let it nurse when you are there to restrain her or supervise. You don’t want the calf so afraid of her that it won’t suckle.

Penning the cow next to her calf also gives a clue when the heifer starts to change her attitude. When she begins to show a little interest in the calf — standing next to its pen or mooing at it — it may be safe to leave them together.

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